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Bonhoeffer on Stupidity24-Oct-2021

The following is taken from a circular letter, addressing many topics, written to three friends and co-workers in the conspiracy against Hitler, on the tenth anniversary of Hitler's accession to the chancellorship of Germany.

"Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was also staunchly and vociferously anti-Nazi. Bonhoeffer was jailed, accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hanged by the Nazis just as the Nazi regime was collapsing in total defeat. He was by this certainly the victim of Nazi stupidity. His works are well known, especially books like Life Together which is often read in Lutheran circles.

"If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

"Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what the people really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

"But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from people’s stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom."

From "After Ten Years" in Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Christian Gremmels, Eberhard Bethge, and Renate Bethge, Ilse Tödt, eds. John W. de Gruchy, English ed. Isabel Best et al, trans. Letters and Papers from Prison. Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 2010. Dietrich Bonhoeffer works, vol. 8

Capitol Insurrection: Are We Learning Anything?22-Feb-2021

History and the American teaching principle

If you are, as I am, a fan of the PBS series American Experience you may have heard this self-effacing all-American quote.

"War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography."1

After the American experiences in the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, and two world wars, this old saying was commonly heard. Apparently we used to be even worse at finding things on a map before American GI's were shipped en masse overseas. War is bad but it's good to know we at least learned something. We eventually left most of our isolationist thinking behind and learned some world political geography.

In a similar vein, one might now hope that the four-year Trump era was God's way of teaching Americans how American democracy is supposed to work.

Crises are traditionally how many of us learn about the wider world; not in school but when we are forced by circumstances. And so I've been thinking for four years now about the traditions and institutions of American democracy behind the scenes, and beyond The Constitution. It's so much more than learning how a bill becomes a law.

While the insurrectionists may take lessons on how to be more effective next time, I'm learning some very basic lessons over again.

Three things to think about.

  1. The president is not the commander in chief of the nation.

    Ii is often said that the president is the "commander in chief" as if he or she were the commander in chief of the whole country. He is not our commander! He is not our leader. He's one minister. Unfortunately over the years the United States has been trapping itself more and more into electing a king.

    There seems to be significant confusion on this point. The Constitution names the civilian president as the commander in chief of the armed forces. He or she is not the commander in chief of the people. He is otherwise the chief executive officer of the nation responsible for administering the laws passed by Congress. And he is decidedly not above the law.

    He or she is most especially not the leader of the nation and represents the people of the United States only as our chief minister in dealing with foreign nations. Beyond constitutional powers he is nominally the political leader of his party and the chief spokesman for his party's legislative agenda, though that's not necessarily always the case.

    If you ask me, the President has way too much power as it is. Looking upon the president as a focus for patriotism is anachronistic and a skewed view of the constitution. We're beginning to look upon the president as a king or queen, a view particularly rejected by the framers of the constitution. But the framers didn't go far enough. The attraction of a central authority and personal focus for loyalty is still a force in the mind of the United States despite our proud ignorance of royal etiquette. This is a recipe for disaster as we have just seen.

    But in the US we have no greater focus of loyalty beyond The Constitution. You'd think that would mean that we have all read and studied constitutional law as a matter of course, but it doesn't. Apparently, many Americans are unaware of what the constitution actually says. But we have been learning. Over the Trump era, constitutional experts have been popping out of the Capital woodwork and our TV screens to clarify, as best they can, the basic points of The Constitution.

    The Republican party has a habit of electing presidents who will go along with the party line and are easily manipulated. And even maybe, as with Trump, dysfunctional enough to make government not work very well, all the while attracting a large personally loyal following. Republicans want a government that clearly doesn't work well. That's practically their whole thesis. As a result, countries like China point to Trump as a perfect example of how Democracy doesn't work. Electing Trump was our greatest failure as a nation.

    Evangelical Christians have another take on it. Being bound to following a messiah, they can view the president as a religious figure who is in the role of saving the nation from sin and destruction. Since this is, in their view, a Christian nation, shouldn't the president naturally be a messiah figure?

    When a president has too much power and commands religious or personal loyalty, democracy is endangered. Democracy does not have messiahs or kings. It's just not that kind of thing.

  2. The so-called "Main Stream Media" is now and has been since the American Revolution the main force behind the unity of an informed American people.

    America did, of course, inherit a tradition of printing and newspapers from Britain. There were, let's say, bad newspapers and good newspapers. Bad ones printed stories to enhance their own wealth and power, whether the stories were true or not. And good ones printed what was true for the most part and made a buck that way.

    In the colonies there was a new use for newspapers. From the time of the infamous Stamp Act of 1765, a network of newspaper printers grew up with the specific purpose to inform the colonial peoples and unite the colonies in a common goal of achieving independence from Britain2,3. Of course there was an established so-called loyal press, but they didn't have a network across the colonies. They didn't need one. They simply printed what the colonial governments were about. (I'm surely over-simplifying this.)

    The press was then and still is biased as all human beings are. The press is at times given to exaggeration and at times interested in its own power and wealth. At the same time, however, there has been a growing tendency toward professional journalism that makes truth, accuracy, and facts sacrosanct. Particularly during and after the two world wars, having been threatened with firing squads and forced to report untruths, journalists were anxious to institute a professional adherence to reporting real facts and not propaganda. This is a big subject and one which I plan to explore in a future article in this blog. Suffice it to say that it is possible today to peruse the available news outlets and identify the trustworthy ones and that is what has informed, correctly, the American people of today. One book that explores this is Derick J. Taylor's Fayke Newes4. Also see Edward McKernon's 1925 article of fake news in America5.

    Lastly, the internet has swamped us with everything from responsible journalism to crass propaganda and lies. Because of this, it is especially important for each person to examine carefully the many sources of information and what they claim. It's a daunting task that many people are clearly not up to. And that is likely your opinion too no matter what side you're on.

  3. The so-called two party system is a curse.
    Dave Ball, the chair of the Washington County (Pennsylvania) Republican party endorsed censuring Senator Pat Toomey because, as he said "We did not send him [to Washington] to vote his conscience. We did not send him there 'to do the right thing' or whatever." From JackInEC, YouTube.

    First we should note that political parties are not part of The Constitution. If we should learn anything from recent events, it's that political parties generate factions and party loyalties at the expense of democracy. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton famously addressed the question of "factions", political parties, in Federalist Papers6 No.s 9 and 10. The title that Madison and Hamilton both used was The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. You'd think this title would be enough to demonstrate the intent of the framers. But let's look at what American tradition has to say.

    I do remember when Senators and Representatives lived by the motto that a good representative owed his constituents his best judgement on all matters. But the present Republican Party has turned that on it's head. As you can hear in the video above, unelected Republican party boss Dave Ball thinks that an elected representative, in this case Senator Pat Toomey, should adhere strictly to the party line and not use his own judgement. Toomey, of course, voted to convict former president Trump of insurrection. Well, who does Toomey represent anyway, his constituents who elected him or his party bosses?

    This party dominance over its own elected representatives in Congress is not a prescription for a better democracy. It is a prescription for insurrection and dictatorship.

It's difficult to say who is learning what. Younger people are becoming excited to take part in elections and even running for office. Black lives are beginning to matter. The basic racism that has haunted America for centuries is challenged in new ways.

The president has too much power that is not granted by the constitution. The so-called main stream media, of the Edward R. Murrows and Walter Cronkites, actually does a very good job of informing the people of what its government is doing, although today's flood of internet information requires citizens to use very careful judgement or they will find themselves trapped in somebody else's echo chamber.

On the other hand those who took part in the January 6th insurrection are probably thinking about how to do it better next time. What things are they learning, I wonder.

1. There are various incarnations of this quote. It is most often attributed, probably falsely, to either Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce. See Quote Investigator

2. Adelman, Joseph M. Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789. (Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia). Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. Kindle Edition.

3. Humphrey, Carol Sue. The American Revolution and the Press: The promise of independence. Evenston, Ill. Medill School of Journalism. Northwestern University Press, 2013. Print.

4. Taylor, Derek J. Fayke Newes: The Media VS the Mighty from Henry VIII to Donald Trump. Gloucestershire, UK. The History Press, 2018

5. McKernon, Edward. (October, 1925). Fake news and the Public. Harper's Magazine. Retrieved from

6. Rossiter, Clinton, ed. Introduction and annotations by Charles R. Kesler. The Federalist papers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay. New York: A Signet Classic. 1999. Apple Books.

We Breathe Each Other's Air23-July-2020

Above banner from a poem by Dylon Mason, "The Breath"

You Know Enough Already

Whether we're talking about breathing each other's air or breathing each other's politics, so to speak, we really know enough already. We are truly, in everything, up or down, in this together. First, let's talk about air.

When I taught physical science, I would introduce my new students to the idea that they already knew a lot about what we would soon be studying in more detail. Just by living in the world, throwing a baseball, climbing a tree and jumping from it, running up and down hill, you learn a version physical science in your bones. And here I'd like to point out that you already know a lot about how we spread disease from person to person.

You know the basic science already. It's like your Mom, and probably Dad, always said, "cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze." The proof is in bad breath.

I worked with a guy once who every once in a while would have some garlicky dish for lunch. His breath would climb the walls and round the corners of his cubical and enter mine. I could smell, and had to breathe, what came out of his mouth.

And also regular old bad breath that we're all familiar with, when it happens, tells us exactly how far and in what circumstances we breathe each other's breath. So now, in an office, we must be breathing each other's breath even when it doesn't stink, right? (Bear with me.)

If someone is shedding a virus through their breath, we know that that virus is spreading even if we can't smell it. And just like bad breath, if we're outside, our experience tells us that transmission of either bad breath, garlic, or disease, has got to be less. These are simple facts we have already experienced if we have indeed been breathing. Why some people seem oblivious to the obvious, I'll speculate below.

And we can go further with the help of a little science that is over a century old, as old as Mom and Dad's admonition to cover your cough. What we'd like to know more is just what is transmitted in the breath, and how far it can go, how long will it last, and most importantly, how we can avoid infection most effectively. These are not so obvious questions. So here we go. And you know where we're headed for now, right? To masks1.


This is a graphic made by William F. Wells in his study of the droplet transmission of tuberculosis in the mid 1950s. It's out of date, and not strictly applicable to SARS-CoV2, but it proved an important point. See reference 2 below for an interesting short history read. I got this from the Vox Website.

The "bad breath" we're concerned with here is the SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19 virus. On top of the various ways that a pathogen might transfer from one us to another is the particular properties of the COVID-19 virus itself; how long it remains infective, how many particle are required for infection, how many particles are shot into the air by our breathing, singing, sneezing, and so on. And here the real science, and a little history2, helps.

First of all, bare particles of this virus do not exist in the air. That's because obviously they must be breathed into the air in the same way as bad breath. Virus particles are always contained in moisture (water, mucus etc.) droplets. So, it's not the virus particles themselves, which are extremely small, it's those darn droplets keeping those darn virus particles alive. And those droplets come in a range of sizes.

Forget any analysis that says virus particles are too small to be filtered by face masks. First, we're not talking about bare virus particles. Second, masks like the N95 are perfectly capable of filtering them out anyway9.

The bad breath theory of transmission that I've put forward normally goes by two other names; aerosol and droplet transmission. The word aerosol is reserved for those cases where the droplets are very small and are unaffected by gravity. That is, they don't settle out of the air but remain suspended. With a very infectious virus, like measles, infection can take place over a distance of ten feet or more. If this is the case, the virus is termed airborne. When doctors and nurses hear the term "aerosol" it means they are to take specific actions with respect to this mode of possible transmission over distance.

The larger particles are droplets. When doctors and nurses hear the term "droplet", they institute another set of appropriate protocols to deal against a more close-up infection possibility. This is mostly where we're at with COVID-193.

For us simple mask wearers, it doesn't really change what we do with our masks. We get a clean mask. We wear it in public in close spaces, maintaining our 6 foot distance, and when we're done we carefully take our mask off without touching the outside of it and pop it in the wash. We then wash our hands and faces. Right?

To be sure, there are other modes on infection from one person to another. There are surfaces on which the virus can remain potent from hours and some say days. And then there's personal contact between individuals one of whom may be infected and spreading the virus. So, don't touch just anything or anybody. And if you do, wash up. It's not rocket science. All it takes is mindfulness.

The Science, Old and New

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston. Public Domain. From Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine - Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic
I had a little bird
Whose name was Enza
I opened up the window
And influenza!

In 1918, it was like no flu ever before. It spread fast. It killed fast. It took people by surprise. Some called it the Spanish flu. Today, in our COVID-19 pandemic, we have our economy to worry about, but in 1918 they had a war going on, with men being shipped overseas by the hundreds of thousands to quite possibly die in battle or die of influenza. It was the 1918 Influenza epidemic, whose story is told in the American Experience film "Influenza 1918"6.

In a few laboratories at the time, viruses (not yet called that) were known only by their ability to pass thru very fine filters that would otherwise trap bacteria. So what was the infectious agent that was much smaller than a bacterium? Some researchers speculated that the flu was actually a fluid. Not until 1931, with the advent of the electron microscope, was there an image of a virus.

At last in October- November 1918 the people began to put on masks. But masks didn't help. And here is where we can learn our lesson. The masks were ineffective because they were used all wrong. The people didn't have a sense of what they were up against. They wore the masks over and over without laundering. They wore them outdoors and took them off when indoors with others. We know this now because of the hindsight of history. E. Thomas Ewing, a history professor at Virginia Tech, has written a blog for HealthAffairs, "Flu Masks Failed In 1918, But We Need Them Now"12. Read the short blog for more detail. Back then they weren't thinking of particles, aerosols or droplets, or bad breath for that matter. How important the merest information or the merest particle can be in matters of life and death!

Open Wide! This fills me with horror.

A closely allied story is that of tuberculosis, also the subject of an American Experience film "The Forgotten Plague: Tuberculosis in America"7. This film is available, as of this writing, on Amazon Prime.

Here is the very start of the germ theory of disease put forward by Robert Koch. There are many heroes here, including William F. Wells, mentioned in the figure above, who determined the spreading of tuberculosis by droplet particles expelled by breathing. Throughout this film I was amazed to see no one wearing masks, not patients, and not the medical staff.

For more sources of current science and news, see my list of references and the end of this blog.

We Breath Each Others Politics Too

What do you call it when two citizens of opposite and inimical views cannot yet see their common good? If your fellow citizens ask you to do a simple thing that can only help everybody, why wouldn't you do it? On the altars of ideology, politics, and economics, we are sacrificing our common good4.

We are failing to protect ourselves as we fall apart. Divided against each other we are infecting each other with loss of faith in each other. It's the bad breath analogy all over again.

We Are All Africans9-July-2020

"We are all Africans" could be taken as a statement of solidarity with African Americans in these recent times. But however you take it, it's really a statement of biological fact that should unite us all as one people. According to scientists, we humans evolved over a long time in Africa, and more recently evolved over nearly the entire planet to become what we are today. There are no "Races of Mankind", as some people may still assume, as if different segments of the humanity had different roots. According to scientists, our true ancestry points back to a common root and a single subsequent history.

THE IDEA OF “RACE” represents one of the greatest errors, if not the greatest error, of our time, and the most tragic. What “race” is everyone seems to know, and is only too eager to tell.
- Ashley Montegu in "Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race"1, 1945.

The Big Picture

Poster for a public symposium in 2013 given by the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA). Athropogeny is the study of Human origins. This is a review of but a tiny bit of the scientific evidence for the "Out of Africa" hypothesis. See links at bottom of this article.

What scientists know today is that all modern humans around the world, without exception, can trace their ancestry to Africa, and Africa only. The genomes of all humans outside of Africa look like a subset of the genomes of today's Africans.

Our species evolved in Africa from earlier, or archaic, human forms2. At some point, maybe 300,000 years ago, across the African continent there began a continuous process of interbreeding, or gene flow, between groups of similar archaic human populations. Gene flow, the exchange of genetic material, continued between human populations even as humans spread out of Africa and throughout most of the world. And this includes the important interbreeding with the Neanderthals and Denisovans, other forms of humans who had already dispersed from Africa perhaps 400,000 or more years ago. This program of continuous and widespread gene flow between human groups seems to be the thing responsible for us being the only kind of human in the world today.

Where Do We Come From?

According to Jean-Jaques Hueblin, Director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, throughout all of Africa perhaps beginning 500,000 years ago there was a great diversification of hominins showing various anatomical characters many of which are now part of our physical constitution. According to CARTA4, "Available evidence indicates that all humans living today are derived from a relatively small population that arose in Africa beginning over 200,000 years ago, spreading throughout Africa and eventually the rest of the planet."

Africa is a big continent three times the size of the United States of America. Yet these earlier versions of ourselves seem to have spread their influence, technology, and themselves, throughout Africa. Hueblin and his colleagues have added a big chunk of data for this view coming from Jebel Irhoud in Morocco in Northwest Africa. Dated to about 300,000 years ago, this site of early modern human occupation yielded examples of symbolic behavior such as shell beads and many examples of stone tools which look much like beads and tools around the rest of Africa at the time.

I would summarize the situation as a continent-wide culture spread throughout Africa. And because these various peoples exchanged genes, there seems to have been a continent-wide emergence of a new type of far ranging human, namely us.

And of course it need hardly be pointed out that we are spreading ourselves still over the globe and sustaining intermarriages between people of different cultures. And we do this big time. It's a thing.

And I might add, as far as the human male is concerned, there seems to be little in terms of breeding requirements beyond bipedality and female. (And then not necessarily female. And again not necessarily bipedal! And thereby hangs a tale, I'm sure.)

How Did We Get Here?

Putative migration waves out of Africa and back migrations into the continent, as well as the locations of major ancient human remains and archaeological sites (López et al.2015).

The most recent migration of modern humans out of Africa has been dated at from 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. This latest out of Africa migration, see the figure at the right, is thought to be more or less the point in our evolution that set us up as the single surviving species of humans and the most successful throughout the world.

There are evidences of earlier migrations of earlier human types, such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans at about 400,000 years ago. But also, even before, it is known by the fossil record that some Homo erectus migrated out of Africa at some much earlier time, perhaps one million years ago.

Homo sapiens, us, reached Australia about 45,000 to 50,000 years ago, and reached Europe by 40,000 to perhaps 45,000 years ago. And lastly, we migrated to the Americas by 13,000 to 15,000 years ago.

And here the plot thickens, for here modern humans in Europe came into contact with the Neanderthals and Denisovans and interbred, exchanged genes, with them. And also the moderns directly competed with these archaic types for resources. Homo sapiens created rock art paintings and clearly symbolic artifacts that were part of a wider culture of much more modern tool making, and the extension of long trade routes. We have always kept in touch with each other over long distances in technology, language, and genetics.

At the same time, you'll see by examining the dispersion map above, that there were also migrations back into Africa, apparently adding to the gene flow in all directions. For example, Neanderthal genes are widely detected in European populations and are now being found in lesser degree within African populations today. And so for many reasons we are today a single species of highly related individuals.

Homo sapiens is the only surviving species in the genus Homo. That is a very odd thing in the world, according to scientists. Most usually, any Genus contains multiple species. There are several species of the genus Pan, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Most genera have many species. How did we become the only species of Homo? It's as if our evolution proceeded at the genus level and not at the species level. I suspect we took off on a new path of evolution when we welded together various earlier species and gained from them new and successful genes. We simply absorbed all the other species, as least in part, and out competed all of the remainder.

And so, Why Racism?

Humans are proud of civilization. So proud that many of us today think that whatever came before does not count for much. That view would be completely wrong on two counts. First, humans developed high intelligence long before civilization. And second, the past is surely not empty of world changing revolutions in thought, culture, and technology. Although we may no longer be aware of many of them.

While we may find cruelty and tribal war at any time in the long human past, racism as we know it today is a product of civilization and not an inherent part of human nature. Racism, the belief in the existence of superior and inferior identifiable biologically determined races of human beings, came about only within the last 500 years or so, during the period of increasing colonialism and imperialism. But it was a political, not a scientific biological, impulse.

Driven by greed, our racism grew along with slave trading and cotton and sugar cane growing. And it took an insidious turn during the earliest parts of the 20th century under the guise of improving the human race in the new pseudo-science of Eugenics5,6,8. These new ideas of race were widespread in the United States and Europe, and played a commanding role in the Nazi quest for a pure Germanic race. That of course led to the holocaust.

Real science, meanwhile, since the 1930's, had been increasingly aware of the fallacy in racist thinking. But that has not been enough to wipe out the practice.

So today we are charged with the final wiping out of racism. It is to the reunification of all the people on Earth that we are now called to dedicate ourselves.

We need to return to our true roots, born in Africa.

The Time Before Global Warming18-May-2019

Revised 24-July-2019


Global warming is a new thing in our modern human awareness, though it was certainly well known to ancient humans. Global warming has happened many times before in Earth's climate history. However, for the past 11,700 years, the period of geological time scientists call the Holocene Epoch, there has been only minor shifts in climate, such as the little ice age from 1300 to 1850. So, for most of modern history, humans were not aware of anything greater than mild climate change. I thought it would be interesting to learn how we moderns have become aware of long past climates and ice ages.

In this Holocene period in which we live, climate has been unusually warm and stable compared to the more distant past. During this time, and before the current human induced warming trend, there had been relatively little change in climates around the world. This Holocene is when agriculture, cities and states, and civilization itself sprang up in many places on Earth independently. It has been a period of fundamental change, for us as well as many other species on Earth.

The period just before 11,700 years ago is referred to as the Pleistocene Epoch, lasting 2.6 million years. It was a period of dramatic global climate swings and of ice ages, especially considering the northern hemisphere with its great ice sheets. Such ice sheets are responsible for spectacular surface features like Long Island, Cape Cod, the Great Lakes, and Hudson's bay. And it wasn't that long ago. Hudson's bay is still rebounding upward at nearly half an inch per year as the weight of all that ice has melted away.

At the end of the Pleistocene, the beginning of the Holocene, there began a global warming. Our warm period like many before are referred to as interglacials, 10,000 year or so warm periods between the 100,000 year or so climate fickle ice ages. We might speculate, reasonably, that after some time in this warm interglacial period the Earth will again enter another ice age.

The Holocene interglacial period, in which we live, stacked upon the previous Pleistocene ice age, is probably most responsible for the evolution of our vast global civilization of today. Yet only recently have we become familiar with "global warming" of any kind. Much less, if it's possible, had we moderns been aware of ice ages, continental ice sheets and gargantuan glaciers, at least until the late 1800's.

However, people alive in the Pleistocene Epoch were certainly aware of rapid warming and cooling, and of wet and dry centuries. Humans had to struggle to survive these times of ecological change as food sources moved or died. Many anthropologists in fact point to this variable and sometimes inhospitable challenging past as the driving force behind human evolution, leading to our big brains and our modern physical form. It is the modern discovery of those prior times that I want to explore here.

By the way, the Pleistocene Epoch (ICS 2019, see notes), a geological age, can also be referred to, ruffly, as the Old Stone Age, or the Paleolithic age, a formative period of human evolution.


In around 1796, Georges Cuvier (1769 - 1832), the famous French anatomist, discovered at least two things that advanced a rethinking the possibilities of change. First there was the woolly mammoth of the northern cold Euro-Asian climates. And then there was his discovery of extinction. This was, in fact, the start of the modern debate about climate change, as we'll see.

Until Cuvier, the fossil remains of mammoths found only in the northern latitudes were thought to be those of large elephants. But what would warm-climate elephants be doing in the cold north where they could not survive? The standard explanation at the time was that those elephants whose remains were found far to the north were drowned in the Great Flood of Noah, their bodies then transported to the north by the flood's turbulent receding waters.

However, Cuvier's studies revealed that these large "elephants" were actually a species separate from elephants and had been in fact cold adapted. And furthermore, they were extinct. There were other extinct cold weather species too whose remains were found only in the north and so could not have been transported there by the great flood.

The question was about the fossil finds in England of both mammoths and elephants in the same regions. Mammoths were cold adapted and elephants were warm adapted. How could they live in the same places at the same time? Was there a much colder climate in the past right here in England?

The Bible was silent on these creatures, their creation, and their fates, and on climate change, as we would expect of late Holocene authors or the Bible. Extinction was a problem for those Biblical literalists who believed that God's creatures could not change or become extinct. While many thought that the Bible could one way or another explain all things everywhere, it was becoming apparent that the Bible reflected only the thoughts of a late Holocene people centered in one area of the Earth and in one period of time.

Cuvier's view was that of catastrophism, the idea that from time to time God would order great calamities of destruction even to making some species extinct. But, it was thought also, given the actual fossil record, that existing species simply migrated to fill the voids, and that some new species were then created by God to help fill the Earth once again. In searching for the true creative process used by God, it seemed by most that the Bible needed to be supplemented by investigative scientific field work. The Bible wasn't the last word on creation, though maybe it was one of the first.

Siccar Point, one of Hutton's many key observations. Vertical layers, which were once horizontal, were eroded down to a new surface on which a red sandstone sedimentary layer was subsequently deposited. Click image for a larger view. Photo by Dave Souza. CC BY-SA 4.0


Meanwhile, as Frenchman Cuvier was busy becoming the father of modern paleontology, Scotsman James Hutton (1726 - 1797) was busy publishing his revolutionary book Theory of the Earth. Hutton was part of a period in Scottish history referred to nowadays as the "Scottish Enlightenment". It was a tremendously fruitful period of scientific achievement. A scientific revolution was happening all over the West in which Hutton and Cuvier were just two of many revolutionaries. But Scotland has a special place in the hearts of today's scientists. Earth's geology in Scotland is mostly laid bare all over the highlands, which makes it an ideal place to observe and develop physical theories of Earth's geologic history.

In Hutton's theory, Earth is seen as an evolving system of oceans, atmosphere, and land all interacting and following God's own natural laws. This is still, with or without God, the modern view. All around the world the continuous erosion of land and mountains was observed. Even the tallest mountains are not spared. Since land is continuously being worn down, perhaps the Earth was being maintained in rough form by a compensating process of mountain building. One source of new land was volcanoes which pour out new material and raise volcanic mountains and islands. But more than that, Hutton could see the bent, folded, tilted, and eroded mountain rock layers everywhere in Scotland. That indicated some sort of geological crunching and building up process alongside erosion.

The essence of Hutton's argument was that observable natural processes occurring today was all that was needed to explain the process of creation. He was not an atheist, though he was accused of this. But neither was he a Biblical literalist. God's creative process, it seemed, used the very forces of nature that could still be observed everywhere. Geology was becoming a serious science of Earth history.

Natures Rock Rippers

Mountain glaciers don't seem all that spectacular when you look at them. When we visited Glacier National Park in Montana and Canada, the glaciers didn't seem to be much more than snow on the side of mountains. Of course, in the past these glaciers would have been much bigger as one could see in the historic photographs displayed in the kiosks. But the tranquil looks of glaciers is deceiving.

Glaciers, it turns out, are ferocious rock rippers and mountain grinders. All it takes is geological time, and really not all that much. Ice is very sticky stuff. It creeps into rock crevices, pries the rock apart and carries away downslope a load of boulders and pebbles cemented in its skin.

And glaciers move noticeably. The ice, which we think of as solid, is actually flowing slowly with its load of rock on its underside like a giant piece coarse sand paper. It rips up more rock, scouring out valleys and smoothing mountain sides to a coarse polish and generally leaving a full display of traces of its presence for future discovery. Glaciers can move giant boulders, called erratics, miles from their original source rock. Glaciers can plow tons of gravel and clay, piling up mountains of debris called glacial moraines. Some moraines, as in Jackson Hole, are themselves little mountains. (I'm referring here to the ridges in the front of the view. The rear mountains are the Tetons.)

In the Holocene, we've been living in an age of general glacier melting and recession. Humanity simply doesn't remember previous ages without the aid of historical sciences such as geology. And, in hindsight, it took a long time for geologists to recognize the work of glaciers.

The Morteratsch Glacier is the largest glacier by area in the Bernina Range of the Bündner Alps in Switzerland. Click image for a larger view. Photo by Günter Seggebäng. CC BY_SA 3.0. Location: 46° 24′ 34″ N, 9° 55′ 54″ E

In the figure to the right is the Morteratsch Glacier. Click on the image for greater resolution. The entire frame is a dished out area of what was once a mountain peak. And there is a central peak now that is currently being eaten away. If you look closely, following the glacier paths down the slope, you'll see gravel pilings along the sides, all ground up and put there by the glacier.

The Morteratsch is not a special glacier. This process has taken place, and is taking place around the world. Nowadays, this glacier, like almost all glaciers, has been melting due to recent human-induced global warming. And so we get a fresh view of the destruction, you might say digestion, of mountains by otherwise innocent looking ice.

Glacial Catastrophes

As glaciers carve out and move down valleys they can sometimes create great ice dams. If conditions are right for it, these dams can block river flows and create huge lakes behind them. This happens both with mountain glaciers and also with continental ice sheets. For example see Glacial Lake Missoula and the origins of parts of the Columbia River.

Modern Village of Martigny in the Southwest Swiss Alps. The village was twice devastated by floodwaters produced by a breaking ice dam of the Gietroz Glacier, once in 1595 and again in 1818. By the second time, geologists were ready to study glaciers in errnest. Photo by Odrade123, CC BY_SA 3.0

In 1818 there occurred a catastrophic break in a glacial dam made by the Gietroz Glacier upstream of the town of Martigny, Switzerland. According to Jamie Woodward (Woodward 2014), some 400 houses were destroyed and 34 people lost their lives.

News of this disaster spread across Europe. And this event, according to Woodward, marked a pivotal moment in the study of glaciers and led to the first investigations of possible colder climates in the past.

Immediately after the disaster, engineer and soon to be glaciologist Ignace Venetz (1788 - 1859) was engaged to study the region's glaciers with a view to predicting their behavior. His field work was pioneering and led to new revelations about the past history of glaciers. He was joined by Jean-Pierre Perraudin (1767 - 1858), a mountain guide who had already observed the signs of glacial plowing and rock smoothing far down valley from the present extent of glaciers in the region. Venetz studied the relation between glaciers and climate fluctuations. They came up with the first theory of glaciers that depended on extensive field observation.

The Charpentier map of the extend of erratic boulders in the Rhône Valley. The yellow areas are pretty much outlined his "Monster Glacier" since the maximum extent of erratics tend to mark the greatest extent of glaciation.

Venetz and Perraudin were then joined by geologist and mining expert Jean de Charpentier (1786 - 1855) who did extensive research on the former extent of the Swiss glaciers by studying the precise positions of erratic boulders and other signs of glacial action throughout most of Switzerland. He came up with an astounding hypothesis of the "Monster Glacier" that had previously occupied most of North-Western Switzerland. His map of erratic boulders pretty much shows the extent of the monster glacier. It extended almost to the border of France at the Jura Mountains (from which we get the name "Jurassic Period" and hence "Jurassic Park").

The case for much larger glaciers in a most likely colder past had been fairly well made by 1830 or so, at least in Switzerland. Whats more, Jens Esmark (1763 - 1839) of Denmark discovered that glaciers had been responsible for the carving of Denmark's famous fjords and even that ice sheets had pushed down to flat lands and the sea. You'd think with all this information available the world's geologists would be slapping their foreheads saying, "Of Course! How did we miss that?" But once again, it was left to Scotland's Highlands to truly nail down the new Ice Age theory.

Louis Agassiz (1807 - 1873), another Swiss born glaciologist and biologist, took the work of his predecessors and advanced a full-blown theory of Ice Ages. He was truly a champion of this theory, bringing it to the attention of geologists in a more forceful way. He travelled to Scotland and convinced some of the leading British geologist of the fundamental correctness of the theory by showing many examples of former glaciers in Scotland, a land now devoid of ice. Even Charles Darwin became convinced. Darwin, looking at Cwm Idwal in Wales (Don't try to pronounce it. You'll hurt yourself.) remarked that even if that place were still filled with ice, there still would not be as much proof of a glacier than the marks of glacial action in the valley walls and rocks.

With the addition of American geologists who found evidence of ice sheets all over North America that had pretty much formed its surfaces, the Ice Age, with its colder climates by far, was in fashion.

It is now understood that there were perhaps as many as 17 ice ages of various intensities along with their interglacial warm periods. Advances in the science, now referred to as paleoclimatology, has led to a fairly impressive description of past climates.

Where do we go from here?

The next stage of the climate science story is the development of a truly integrated community of climate scientists and politicians. All of the fields of biology, chemistry, oceanography, physics, thermodynamics, and even astronomy and astrophysics are required to pull together an understanding of how our planet works. And this understanding must go from below the bottom of the oceans, to the center of the sun, and to the shape and wobbles of Earth's orbit.

This next stage in the story is covered well by Spencer R. Weart in his book The Discovery of Global Warming (Weart 2008) and Website. Aside from the history of the technical details, Weart points out the frank necessity for not just scientists, but for policy makers world-wide who are now coming together to face what we must now face; the real possibility of catastrophic climate change that could be very damaging to our civilization. This is being done at the level of the United Nations and through the participation of weather and climate organizations around the globe. In the US, see The National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration.

International Commission on Stratigraphy. International Chronographic Chart, 2019.

Woodward, Jamie. The Ice Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Weart, Spencer R. The Discovery of Global Warming. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.

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Sirius rising next to pyramids